Thursday, March 26, 2009

Max Baucus is Mr. Health Care

“Among Democrats, Max Baucus is known mostly for his apostasies. So crucial was the Montana Senator to passing George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2001 that he was rewarded with a prime spot at the signing ceremony in the White House East Room. Two years later, it was Baucus who helped Republicans pass a pharmaceutical-industry-friendly Medicare prescription-drug bill, even as his party's congressional leadership was shut out of the process. It is understandable, then, that when Democrats took back control of the White House, many in the party were more than a little dismayed about Baucus' position at the helm of the Senate Finance Committee — the legislative linchpin for just about everything that Barack Obama hopes to accomplish, from rewriting the tax code to curbing global warming. But Baucus has been surprising almost everyone, most notably by the zeal with which he is tackling what could be the toughest challenge of all: overhauling the health-care system to provide coverage for the more than 45 million Americans who lack it and to bring soaring costs under control. Indeed, Baucus' proposal, unveiled in an 89-page white paper eight days after the election, was even more ambitious than Obama's, adding a requirement that individuals who are not covered by their employers purchase their own health insurance, much as car owners must carry auto insurance.(Read "Senate Democrats Optimistic on Health Reform.") And while many have argued that health-care reform should be postponed until the economy is fixed, Baucus has put his foot on the accelerator with a declaration that he intends to see it passed in the Senate by August. "This is kind of why I hired out for this job," he told me on a recent morning in his Western-themed Senate office. "Now is the time. The stars are aligned." That, of course, remains to be seen. Baucus' importance in reforming the health-care system, however, has grown. Unlike the Clinton health-care campaign that ran aground in 1994, the Obama White House's plan is to give Congress the lead in fashioning health-care-reform legislation. And the two Democrats who had been expected to spearhead that task have been sidelined. Former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination to be Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services in early February amid revelations of tax problems, and Edward Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health Committee, has had to work behind the scenes as he battles brain cancer. All eyes are now on Baucus, whose Finance Committee has always been integral to figuring out how to pay for health-care reform. But it wasn't initially clear that he was the ideal point man for the overall effort. "People had been concerned that [Baucus] was not as knowledgeable about the full breadth of health care," says Andy Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union, which has been at the forefront of the drive for health-care reform. ‘But he's there. He understands the contours of the debate. He understands the nuances involved. He's pushing everybody at a relentless speed. Without him, we wouldn't be where we are today.’”,8599,1887719,00.html

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